Ancients and Moderns: On Aristotle’s Politics I.1 (1252a 1-25)

The Aristotle quoted below is from the Carnes Lord translation of the Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

1. Aristotle opens and immediately challenges us and our modern world:

Since we see that every city is some sort of partnership, and that every partnership is constituted for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what is held to be good), it is clear that all partnerships aim at some good, and that the partnership that is most authoritative of all and embraces all the others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city or the political partnership.

It is impossible to not make too much of this. The city (polis) aims at the good; politics is about the good, not just security or property or freedom (contrast with Federalist 10). Moreover, our participation in political life “aims at the most authoritative good of all,” embracing all the other partnerships and the goods they involve. There cannot be church/state separation in a sense here; contrast with Machiavelli.

Independent of any particular practices Aristotle may want us to adopt, what is advanced in this paragraph is a basis for theoretical reflection. The very notion of political theory, despite political science departments with “theorists” and activists that spout what they think is political philosophy, remains alien to us unless our concept of the good can be brought forth. We need to know what we want and how we want it; we need to attempt organizing our needs and wants, our ends and the means we require. We need to be clear man is a social animal (note the repeated use of “partnership”). If we were focused on practicality, or even theoretical reflection of the highest order, it would be possible to deny man’s social nature.

Now the rest of Book 1 of the Politics explores the polis according to “nature.” Thus, Book 1 starts talking about slavery – are there people who ought to be ruled by nature? Are there those who must rule by nature? I find “what is held” (believed? In that case, conventional) and “authoritative” to be interesting words in the paragraph quoted. To what degree can the city not simply be natural?

2. Aristotle then begins to distinguish types of rule:

Those who suppose that the same person is expert in political [rule], kingly [rule], managing the household and being a master [of slaves] do not argue rightly. For they consider that each of these differs in the multitude or fewness [of those ruled] and not in kind – for example, [the ruler] of a few is a master, of more a household manager, and of still more an expert in political or kingly [rule] – the assumption being there is no difference between a large household and a small city; and as for the experts in political and kingly [rule], they consider an expert in kingly [rule] one who has charge himself, and in political [rule] one who, on the basis of the precepts of this sort of science, rules and is ruled in turn. But these things are not true.

Four types of rule have been posited: rule over slaves, household management, political, kingly. One wonders whether “rule over slaves” is merely a form of violence. Political rule is beautiful and ennobling, to say the least: it is where one “rules and is ruled in turn.” Citizenship as leadership: is that “not true?” True or not, it is something any serious republic must consider. We all know we need as much nobility as we can get.

Now Plato and Xenophon do ask at a surface level whether all rule is really just household management. Household management is procurement and distribution: it is roughly what we would call economics. War and peace, not to mention the law, can be thought an extension of such reasoning. All you’re doing at the level of the city is feeding more mouths, no? On a perhaps higher level: a true king uses his expertise to assign people with the correct natures to appropriate tasks?

I think Aristotle insists on a qualitative difference between types of rule in order to make clear there are larger issues at stake. Every regime is a comment on human nature. A proper theoretical accounting works with a diversity, not just “rulers” and “ruled.” Perhaps even the definitions of kingly and political rule are suspect because they underestimate what would comprise a political science.

3. Aristotle concludes this chapter with some remarks pertinent to the philosophic:

This will be clear to those investigating in accordance with our normal sort of inquiry. For just as it is necessary elsewhere to divide a compound into its uncompounded elements (for these are the smallest parts of the whole), so too by investigating what the city is composed of we shall gain a better view concerning these [kinds of rulers] as well, both as to how they differ from one another and as to whether there is some expertise characteristic of an art that can be acquired in connection with each of those mentioned.

What are the parts? What is the whole? What truly rules? If the city is composed of a diversity of human natures, the whole may not simply  be”humanity.” Moreover, various cities try to say something about what man is when truly human. Given that it seems peculiarly human to reflect on nature, nature itself may be at stake. A ruler would be someone (or something) who at the least comprehends human nature. There is probably no such art, but the closest one can come is through wisdom. In our partiality we reflect the goodness of the whole.

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